Astute Medieval Governance


The Amalfi Coast today is a tourist hotspot. Achingly beautiful hills, valleys and terraced citrus groves, ancient towns and fishing ports, and always the seascape of the Gulf of Salerno. To bike the length of the narrow clifftop road from Sorrento to Positano then along to Cetara is exhilarating and rather scary.

Few know of Amalfi’s rise to power and Mediterranean leadership in the early Middle Ages. In the VIII Century, the area centred on the town of Amalfi must have been blessed with outstanding leaders. From this unlikely rugged coast, they pioneered a model of political organization, the maritime republic or city-state. Their trade routes stretched to Byzantium, Egypt and the Arab African littoral, bringing great wealth. The success of the Duchy of Amalfi over three hundred years was based on wise governance, astute politics and fighting capability:

  • Requiring enormous finesse, they managed to occupy and exploit a trade gap between the two great maritime powers – Byzantine Roman Empire and Islam.
  • They retained the protection of Byzantium as their liege, while maintaining remarkable autonomy.
  • With the tolerance of Byzantium, they established colonies, commercial and supply bases throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • They formed autonomous republican governments, an expression of the merchant class that constituted the backbone of their power.
  • Trade required increasing trustworthiness of foreign exchange, coinage, contracts and accounting transactions.
  • They developed the first Maritime Code whose regulations included benefits for their sailors – pay security, injury compensation, recruitment inducements. Of greater economic impact was the regulation of trade throughout the Mediterranean. The Code was adopted by all seafaring powers and lasted five hundred years.
  • They traded successfully with all peoples – Arabs, Byzantines and Europeans – being so respected for their neutrality that they were often called upon to mediate.
  • Their tax system enabled heavy investment in defence, particularly against covetous rivals and Saracen pirates.

Amalfi’s maritime republic model, with its Code, trading networks, political / military alliances and elected Doges (Dukes) made so much money that it was copied over succeeding centuries by several coastal towns on the Italian and Balkan peninsulas, the most notable being Venice, Genoa and Pisa. These four are still represented on the Italian Navy Jack, with Amalfi being the White (now Maltese) Cross on Blue.

This tale does not end happily. In the same decade that the Normans conquered England, they also overwhelmed Amalfi. While in both cases rebellion sputtered for many years, Norman ruthlessness won.

Arrivederci the Golden Age of Amalfi!